Archive for the ‘Second World War’ Category

tirailleurssenegalaisTirailleurs Senegalais (1857-1960) is French for “Senegalese sharpshooters”. It sounds like “Tear-a-year Senegalay”. It was the name for the French Empire’s black army from West Africa. You do not hear about them much, but about 200,000 of them fought in both world wars of the 1900s. They were at Gallipolli and the Somme, for example. They also fought for the empire in Morocco, Vietnam, Syria and Algeria. Despite the name, most were not from Senegal. Many came from what is now Mali and Burkina Faso.

Two-thirds of the French troops who fought to free France from Nazi Germany in 1944 were in fact black, mainly from the Tirailleurs Senegalais. The Americans, however, kept them from entering Paris. They thought it would be “more desirable” if Paris was freed by an all-white army division. They got their way.

Unlike the French and the British, the Americans still had an army separated by race. De Gaulle had to take his mixed army divisions and create an all-white division out of them to suit White American ideas about history. As it was, many of the soldiers who marched into Paris and seemed to be white Frenchmen were in fact Spanish and Middle Eastern.

The Tirailleurs Senegalais were not just robbed of their hero’s welcome: after they got back to Africa they protested about back pay. That led to a massacre by the French on December 1st 1944 at three in the morning at Camp de Thiaroye (there is a film by that name about it).

And there is more: most of the soldiers sank into poverty. After 1959 the French would no longer increase their pension to keep up with rising prices as they did for those  in France.

The Tirailleurs Senegalais were formed in 1857. Most were slaves at first. France did not have enough men to keep and hold its empire. It forced its foreign subjects to fight for the empire too. About half the Tirailleurs Senegalais stayed in West Africa while the rest were sent abroad to extend the empire and keep its peace.

In 1910 the book “La Force Noire” by Charles Mangin came out. Mangin argued that West Africa had a nearly bottomless supply of young men who could fight for France. Not only could blacks be trained to be good soliders, he said, but unlike white people blacks were not as worn out by work nor did they feel pain as much.

None of it was true, but the French jumped on it: they were in fear of the Germans who outnumbered them. So conscription became common in French West Africa. In Senegal about a third of the young men were forced to join the army.

When France fell to Nazi Germany in 1940 the Tirailleurs Senegalais suffered huge losses, about 17,000, because after the Germans won they killed many of them as savages while letting the white Frenchmen live.

Many of the soldiers were Muslim. The language of command was pidgin French and Bambara.

At least 47,000 died for France and its empire, but to this day no monument stands in Paris to honour them.

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The Battle of Midway (June 4th to 7th 1942) was a sea and air battle between the Japanese and Americans near the island of Midway, a thousand miles (1600 km) west of Hawaii. Japan lost four aircraft carriers, America only one. It was the turning point of the Pacific part of the Second World War, turning the war in favour of the Americans.

The top admirals at the battle: Yamamoto for the Japanese and Spruance for the Americans.

Aircraft carriers:

  • Japanese (4): Hiryu (sunk), Soryu (sunk), Akagi (sunk), Kaga (sunk)
  • American (3): Yorktown (sunk), Hornet, Enterprise

Before the battle Japan had more warships than anyone in the Pacific. America had lost most of their ships six months before at the Battle of Pearl Harbor. But it had broken the secret code of the Japanese and knew they would strike at Midway. That allowed America to put what few ships it had at the right place at the right time.

The battle turned at about 10:20 in the morning: the Japanese were preparing to send out a second wave of bombers, which were sitting on the flight decks of the carriers ready to take off in five minutes. Just then American dive bombers suddenly appeared from behind the clouds and destroyed the bombers and the three aircraft carriers they were on: the Akagi, Kaga and Soryu. Only the Hiryu was left.

The fighter planes that were supposed to protect the carriers while the bombers got ready had been drawn off to fight American torpedo bombers. They destroyed most of them, but left the three ships naked and helpless.

The Hiryu went on to destroy the Yorktown, but in the end it was sunk too.

Before Midway and the Battle of the Coral Sea a month before, sea battles were largely a fight between battleships with big guns. It had been that way for hundreds of years. But now the Americans had shown that it was aircraft carriers and their warplanes that mattered most. The Japanese knew that air power was important in sea battles, but the Americans had an even more profound understanding of this new fact.

Admiral Yamamoto, even after he lost his four carriers, still had far more ships. He might have pressed home his advantage to take Midway. And in the old days he would have. But having lost all his carriers he no longer had any air cover. His ships would be sitting ducks. So he had to pull back.

Churchill had said the British and Americans would gain the upper hand in the Pacific by May 1942. Not bad. He based that on how fast Japan, America and Britain were building ships. Battleships and carriers take years to build, so the loss of four carriers at Midway was a grave one for Japan: for every carrier Japan built, America built two. So once America got the lead, Japan would never catch up.

After the battles of Midway and the Coral Sea, Australians no longer had to fear the Japanese landing on their shores.

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